HOUSTON (Reuters) - A Texas grand jury on Wednesday indicted chemicals manufacturer Arkema North America and one of its executives on assault charges, alleging they underplayed the dangers of a fire that injured two emergency workers called to the site during a fire.
The U.S. arm of the French chemicals firm and its vice president of logistics, Michael Keough, were charged with “reckless assault” of two sheriff’s deputies by misrepresenting hazards of chemicals released during a fire after Hurricane Harvey, prosecutors said.
“The reckless assault was the misrepresentation by a highly placed corporate official” of the dangers of organic peroxides that burned after the plant flooded, said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. A conviction carries a penalty of two years to 10 years, she said.
Rusty Hardin, an attorney who represents Arkema in an earlier criminal case the district attorney brought against the company and two other executive over the same fire and chemical release last year. Those charges are scheduled to go before a jury in May.
Hardin ridiculed the indictment, which came a month ahead of a scheduled criminal trial on reckless endangerment against Arkema and two other executives stemming from the same fire.
“I don’t know how they can charge someone with assaulting someone without ever having met him,” said Hardin. “This has to do with using the power of prosecution in pursuit of a social agenda.”
The Arkema plant became waterlogged and lost power needed to keep the volatile chemicals cooled after Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the area in September 2017.
The two deputies entered the grounds of the plant and were injured by smoke from burning containers, Ogg said. The containers each held around 500,000 pounds of organic peroxides.
Twenty-one people sought treatment for exposure to fumes from the blaze, and the company was sued by first responders assigned to keep local residents from entering the area. The lawsuits alleged “serious bodily injuries” from inhaled smoke.
Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Susan Thomas